The Age of the Muslim Civil War

The Shiaa-Sunni war is only a small part of a larger dynamic


When analysts and observers talk about what’s going on in the region, they like to refer to a large narrative that is shaping war and peace in our neighborhood. The ‘big’ story today is that there is a cold war between Saudi Arabia (Sunnis) on one side, and Iran (Shias) on the other. Since this is a proxy war the fighting takes place in “stages” like Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain. This, consequently is creating the post-Arab-Spring mayhem that we see everyday in the news.

True but Incomplete

A grand narrative has its benefits. It generally simplifies a complex issue and strips away the superfluous details, making it easy for readers to wrap their heads around otherwise difficult-to-understand situations in far away places. But it can also be dangerous, especially when people start seeing all the conflicts from that prism, causing them to ignore other dynamics that are equally consequential.

I was thinking about this today when I learned that an old Library run by a Christian man was burned down in Tripoli, Lebanon (my city). When that happened, two dynamics immediately took shape on Facebook and Twitter: “Moderate Sunnis” from Tripoli started to forcefully denounce this cowardly act against books and our “Christian Brothers” and planning a demonstration in support of Father Srouj. The other dynamic is that those same “Moderate Sunnis” were being accused by the other Lebanese camp (the supporters of Hezbollah), of getting in bed with and turning a blind eye to the kind of people (extremist Sunnis) who harass Christians and burn down their libraries.

This is when it hit me: Hezbollah’s allies were seeing this through the Shiaa-Vs-Sunni prism, but what happened in Tripoli, a city with a large majority of Sunni Muslims, has nothing to do with the Sunni-Shiaa war. It was a classic case of what I call “Egypt-Syndrome”, where Sunni Moderates (Liberals in Egypt-speak) are confronting Muslim extremists over the maltreatment of Christian compatriots. (In fact General Ashraf Rifi’s pronouncements against the “terrorists” who burned the library is awfully reminiscent of the posture of Egypt’s General Sisi). The Sunni-Sunni conflict is in turn a part of a larger trend in the region, from Turkey to Morocco, where Sunnis are fighting Sunnis over how exactly a modern society should conform to a strict interpretation of the Koran in managing its affairs.

The chart I put together (above), while not comprehensive, attempts to show the geographical breadth of the Muslim-Muslim conflict in all parts of the MENA region. The reason why these conflicts started doesn’t matter (take your pick: Arab Spring removing oppressors and giving a space for conflicts to rise, Zionist Meddling, Western Imperialism, whatever suits your fancy). But what is indisputable is that we have entered the age of the Muslim Civil war.

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  • Mahmoud El Khoja

    This chart is great Mustapha, but it leaves us with one important question that, if left with no answer, can create another simplifying prism:
    what, scientifically, is the difference between mild, extreme, very extreme and moderate Islamists? how do I know where to put myself?

    Is it the degree to which they follow the Quran literally? is it a political difference? is it the propensity to tolerate and co-exist with other people? is it an “elite/non-elite” status? what is an elite, exactly?

    On another note what do we do with those muslims who are true believers but who have a secular approach to public administration & civil society? are these the “moderates” in your chart? if so, I have a huge problem with this word. A true believer should be “radical” in his belief. Luckily enough, his beliefs tell him to be respectful of others. So if he is a true believer, he should “radically” co-exist peacefully with everybody. Where is the “moderation” in that? why aren’t we calling them “normal” or “mainstream” muslims?

    Also, why are the shiites one homogeneous group?

    Sorry for the many questions and the pickiness on the words, but words are very important, and how they are defined can make or break a whole situation.

    • Mustapha

      Thanks for the comment Mahmood.. This chart is generally, as they say in ads, for illustrative purposes only :) . The idea is that there is a continuum, and what you may see as Islamic orthodoxy, others may see as a lax (or strict) interpretation of religion.

      I’m confused about your certainty of who moderates are. Is a muslim who doesn’t mind other muslims drinking alcohol a moderate? Can you call Muslims who drink alcohol or engage in premarital relationships “True Believers” and “radicals in their belief”? What about non-practicing Muslims, those who don’t pray or fast but who are nonetheless excellent doctors, lawyers and engineers? Are they “moderates”? What about Muslim-born atheists? On the other side, some Muslims may be “tolerant” of others simply because they want to stay out of trouble, but in their hearts they believe that their neighbors and friends are going to hell. Are these moderates? I don’t know Mahmood, I’m not as sure as you seem to be.

      As for Shiaas, you are right, I don’t really understand the difference between radicals and moderates, only because I don’t have the requisite expertise. But come to think of it, how can you classify Shiaas who are “moderate” professionals but support Hezbollah?

      In truth Mahmood, this post is more about asking questions than giving answers..

      • Mahmoud El Khoja

        I’m also confused about how you think I am “certain” about anything :)

        I don’t have the slightest idea of how to categorise all these people (myself included) and whether we should categorise in the first place.

        But if we had to categorise, then I guess my problem is in the word “moderate”. I don’t think we should use that word at all, for the following reasons:

        – The label “moderate” assumes that a muslim is not practicing everything his religion tells him to do. I know some muslims who are “exhaustively” religious but are very moderate, respectful and with no pre-judged ideas in their daily interactions with others. These people fall under the “socially moderate”category, but are not moderate religiously. They think their religion is the absolute truth, yet are tolerant of difference (even if they think everybody else is going to hell). These people would be called “extremist” because of their deep beliefs yet they would be huge proponents of a “secular” society simply because it is the most pragmatic solution.

        – The real problem we have is that religion is used as a tribal identity. An identity to kill for (literally). Even there, you cannot use the word “moderate” to categorise people. You will find completely “decadent” muslims who are ready to pick an M16 in the defence of Islam as their “tribe”. This muslim would be called “moderate” by some, just because he sleeps around and drinks senseless.

        – Let me not start on levels of education and cultural awareness (or “elites). Some of these terrorists out there are better educated than you and I.

        In my opinion, the degree of religious devotion or practice is irrelevant to the discussion. You can see it in Syria where the latest fashion is two “extremist” factions fighting each other. What is relevant for categorisation might be the following (using your “content is not comprehensive” disclaimer)

        – Do you physically and morally impose your religious views on others? and that is irrespective of whether you caution others’ doings or not
        (tolerant vs intolerant)
        – Subsequently do you believe “church” and state should be separated? (secularists vs “sharia-ites”)
        – What are you really fighting for? your country or your religion?
        (patriots vs “zealots who think God is so powerless and needs an army”)
        – Do you exclusively belong to your religious tribe or does your “group” include other religions?
        (John Lennon vs “The Chosen People”)

        I challenge you to create a chart using these categories :)

        Again, excellent job on your attempt to make sense of the situation, I’m just being picky and am far from being certain about anything

        P.S.: it is not true that Secular Armed Forces are supported by all elites. None of my Egyptian friends can stand them. Nor can they stand the MB. Go figure :)

  • Hisham

    This discussion will only begin to crystallise by addressing reform. There is a general belief that Islam is a way of life. However, if we are to make any progress we would have to separate the state from religion. It is a process which in some Arab countries started years ago and in some others never did start. All citizens in my view should fall under the rule of law. And the law is the law of the land. Laws are made in Parliament in a democracy and they should be constantly changing to suit the times we live in, and aim to give us better lives by being equitable and all of us equal under these laws. As to what section of the spectrum of Islam you want to place your own individual practice in then that is up to you. This may contradict with the belief that Islam is the truth and is one thing. Once can think this but from the days of mohammad there has been hanbali, Shafai, Shiaa, to count 3 or hundreds of offshoots (I am sure I can just state about 20 instantly) then you have the various interpretations, the reported Hadith, or reported Sunnah, etc. So it is not new that we have these intellectual conflicts. It has been going on for a long, long time. Now we have violence and disruption of daily lives, intolerance, and with so many mufti”s giving laughable fatwas evidently brings need for reform. But sadly we are not going to get the desired reform without violence as many will not accept reform. It is a process and it will take not decades but centuries to come to an end. in the meantime, I am sure we all agree that we cannot continue with the way we are as it is not workable as we can see from the daily going ons in all parts of the Middle East. It is likely that our grand children will begin to make the substantial moves needed. No progress will be made until we let the man or woman practice their religion in their own yard and live outside his home to the rule of the land which will be created incrementally by democratic means over the years and will aim for treating every one whether Muslim, Christian, Jew etc equally under the umbrella of the state.

  • Hisham

    One has to ask – What is a Muslim extremist? Does he
    Wear a long Beard,
    Dresses in Muslim Robes
    Does not sit with people who drink Alcohol
    prays all day
    fasts Ramadan and more
    If he sees a woman passing by he turns the other way if she is not dressed properly as he expect.
    Will not shake hand with a woman, et
    Or is the reference here to the one who blows up places, thereby causing death and mayhem?
    The former does not bother me at all – I may not take him up as a friend or take him on holiday with me or my family. But he is described as an extreme Muslim because he kills and is a terrorist then he is a murderer and should be locked away in order to make sure that he does not offend any more. What say you?